Commentary: Are Singapore businesses just not creative enough?

Commentary: Are Singapore businesses just not creative enough?

Creating an environment that encourages employees to think differently is necessary for companies to grow, says one observer.

Singapore night skyline
Singapore ranked third on the Bloomberg 2018 Innovation Index, going up three spots from its position last year. (Photo: TODAY)

SINGAPORE: Should creativity be a national priority? 

Many associate creativity solely with the arts, and in doing so underestimate its crucial importance for businesses in general – and, by extension, the country’s economy.

I get it. Creativity is one of those ambiguous terms that means different things to different people. But at its heart it implies the consideration of, and experimentation with, new ideas and perspectives.

For businesses that are creative, small and large, this often means operating in a significantly different manner from the norm – be it because of needed changes to their internal structure, business model or processes. 

Creating an environment that encourages employees to think differently can be daunting at first, but might be necessary for companies to survive, grow or even exist.

Take Singapore’s VendCafes. They serve food entirely through vending machines and are a great example of the way a daunting idea can translate into a successful business model.


As Oscar Wilde once put it: 

An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.

This motto doesn’t seem to have reached all of us in Singapore yet. The nation ranked third in this year’s Bloomberg Innovation Index, surpassing the technology manufacturing powerhouse, Germany.

Imagine what Singapore could achieve if we equal our strong focus and success in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines with creativity.

READ: We now live in a ‘science fiction world'. We need to boost STEM education, a commentary

STEM Engineering Lab
An artist's impression of an Engineering Laboratory at PSB Academy's new campus for its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. (Photo: PSB Academy)

While the local education system has been long reputed for producing academically outstanding students, it has also been accused of over-emphasising rote learning and high-pressure examinations. 

A guaranteed-results-orientated culture may be contributing to the development of a populace unused to taking risks; a mindset people might likely adopt in the office.

At least that’s what I have noticed having worked with many small business owners in Singapore. They can be less open to change compared to their counterparts in Asia, even if the market requires it. 

In particular, many told me they lacked the manpower or money to challenge the status quo. The Singapore Government needs to help them gain the confidence, skills and guidance to make sound business decisions that ensure their legacy lives on.

Instilling creativity into the workforce can make this vision a reality. How? By focusing on two of the biggest pain points.

Firstly, creating an education system that fosters creative thinking from the ground up. And secondly, developing government support beyond monetary incentives when it comes to enabling businesses to grow, scale and adapt to change.

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Finland’s renowned education system is one Singapore should consider. Avoiding examinations, Finland allows students to lead investigations into real-life situations, with teachers acting as facilitators rather than steering students towards a specific answer. This encourages creativity and experimentation.

Luckily, the Singaporean Government has started evolving its education system, with two particularly noteworthy initiatives already in progress. Its Applied Learning Programmes in schools, designed to help students apply their learning to the real world, will certainly help to develop innovative thinking.

primary school students first day of school 2018 (1)
A primary school student reading in the school hall. (File photo: MOE)

In addition, schools are looking to technology to encourage collaboration and critical thinking in the classroom, and I look forward to seeing how this might help children develop in ways unimaginable by cohorts of years past.

At the same time, more must be done to ensure that children have a proper school-life balance. I empathise greatly with June Yong, a mother who says the intense curriculum doesn’t leave her children enough time to play and be creative on their own terms. She writes:

In the name of owning a rigorous education system that is the envy of the world, and in the name of helping our children reach their fullest potential, what costs are we paying as a society?... Research has shown that kids with overly tight schedules are significantly less likely to score well on tests that require creative thinking.

READ: June Yong's commentary - Applied Learning a good move, but how about some school-life balance first?

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The Singapore Government has also poured significant resources into helping businesses evolve with the times. Multiple Industry Transformation Maps show the Government’s vision for updating – which often means digitalising – various economic sectors.

Financial aid, such as the Productivity Solutions Grant and the Enterprise Development Grant announced in this year’s Budget, are part of this blueprint particularly designed to equip our businesses with the tools to implement change.

Yet more needs to be done to encourage them to step out of their creative comfort zones, so Singapore can remain an internationally-competing economy.

This starts with the core of any organisation: Its employees. The first thing that often springs to mind is the playground-like offices of famous US technology companies that offer music rooms (LinkedIn), slides (Google) or hammocks (Facebook) designed to make people feel creative and bear ideas which might even change the world, such as bringing live-navigation to people via Google Maps.

google office
Like many tech companies, Google uses open-plan offices. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

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But that’s not the only approach. Companies need to find a way to make employees feel more invested in the work they do, day in and day out.

By creating a culture which encourages the contribution of creative ideas, supported by employee training to develop soft skills to help foster collaboration and a fluid exchange of ideas, organisations will naturally see employees start to challenge the norm.

Ultimately, no creative idea will change the world if it stays an idea. Businesses also need the means to execute creative ideas in the first place: funds. This is a challenge that keeps small business owners awake at night.

In fact, a Xero study found that nine out of 10 small businesses in Singapore have clients who pay late, which negatively affects their cash flow. If businesses struggle to break even, they might freeze non-essential business investments – which often includes those related to fostering creativity.

On the other hand, a healthy cash flow provides a financial cushion that allows businesses to invest, experiment – and fail. Luckily, entrepreneurs can increasingly turn to technology to help stay on top of cash flow, with features like invoice reminders and online payment options working to reduce payment times for small businesses.

Admittedly, igniting a creative spark is no small feat, but it’s increasingly necessary for businesses in Singapore to ensure that they continue to thrive in a rapidly transforming landscape.

Kevin Fitzgerald is regional director for Asia at Xero.